Margaret is an important and beautiful movie which, after years of legal wrangling, never really made it to our cinema screens. Most of the trouble, supposedly, was in trying to get an edit of the film on which director Kenneth Lonergan and its producers could agree – according to the conditions of the studio, it had to come in under 150 minutes. The version I saw ran to about that time but it felt much shorter.
Margaret is about Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) a seventeen year-old girl living in New York with her actor mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), and younger brother (Cyrus Hernstadt). Her father, played by Lonergan himself, lives in L.A., and the three or four phone calls between them are small excruciating masterpieces, showing the relationship between an intelligent, savvy daughter and a creatively ambitious and distracted father who is also deeply sensitive. Lisa is living a relatively standard existence until she witnesses, and is in part responsible for, an accident in which a woman – whom we come to learn was a strong-willed and intelligent New Yorker named Monica – is struck by a bus, and dies in Lisa’s arms.
Heated classroom debates provide a sense of the rhetorical climate in the aftermath of the attacks on the Twin Towers. And combined with Lisa’s own intimate navigation of the limits of responsibility to do with her direct involvement in the death of a person, it is tempting to conclude that this is a film exploring an individual grappling with their historical moment. But the classroom discussions aren’t pitted against Lisa’s individual pursuit of what is right. And although we do witness an irrepressible moral urgency in both cases, there is nothing that is thematically tidy about Margaret.
Anna Paquin is in almost every scene. This is the core strength of the film; it is about her experience before it is about anything else. The people around her with whom she develops relationships – much of the time wilfully – create strata of human weaknesses, failed dreams, adult compromise, and moral questions played out in real time. In other words, the reality of our experience. Lonergan’s film dwells on the human details for which most movies don’t have time; and creates in the process real lives. Recognition of this sort is rarely bleak.
Take, for example, the chubby Matthew Broderick as Lisa’s English teacher. After a small childish outburst of frustration at a student for reading into a line of King Lear something contrary to ‘scholarly opinion’, crestfallen, he walks to his desk where he sips at the straw of his small carton of orange juice, and takes a bite of a flaccid peanut butter sandwich.
Or there is Emily (Jeannie Berlin) – best friend of Monica – a middle-aged Jewish woman – articulate, at times abrasive and emotionally tough, with whom Lisa develops a tempestuous relationship.
Ramon is a successful Columbian businessman whose father was a diplomat, and is of French and Palestinian origin. He invokes old-world gentility and is the suitor to Lisa’s mother. Jean Reno plays him as impeccably chivalrous, and inscrutable in a way that is borderline creepy. In fact, almost every part played in this film is a small miracle; no matter how little screen time a character is given.
What is so different about this film is that it’s not about just one event or theme – the accident and its consequences or New York after 9/11. It is about a person’s whole life over a short period. Hence the classroom scenes: this is somewhere Lisa spends a lot of time; it is only natural that we would see her there, to get the complete picture.
When we see her in her young math teacher’s (Matt Damon) apartment we may wonder whether she would be here too if it wasn’t for the trajectory on which the death of Monica has sent her. But this is about Lisa, and not about how accidents change lives, make people do things they otherwise wouldn’t do; whether or not the accident precipitated and then condensed the experience of maturation – which is no enemy of dramatic structure – she herself is living.
In the beginning, her intention is not a deflection of blame or personal exculpation; she doesn’t want to ruin the life of the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo). But Lisa does need to see that a terrible event will change the people involved. When she encounters her first real disillusionment in the denial of responsibility on the part of bus driver, she strikes out at the world. It turns out not to be her world alone.
Tim Curtain is a writer who lives and works in Melbourne.